The response issued by the Union Ministry of External Affairs on February 3
The response issued by the Union Ministry of External Affairs on February 3

Finding itself at a dead end, unable to find an amicable solution to the on-going protest for the repeal of the farm sector reforms, the government is showing a loss of nerve. This was not so till only a couple of days ago. Maybe after the farmers had earned widespread opprobrium for the disgraceful behaviour during the course of the tractor-rally on the Republic Day, the Government was taken by surprise when they regrouped, this time under the leadership of the maverick western UP farmer leader Ramesh Tikait. His midnight tear-jerker act on television fetched fellow caste brothers to show up in droves at the Ghazipur border, swelling the numbers to record levels since the protest began more than two months ago.

Wiser after the R-Day experience, when it was ordered to fight the unruly mobs with its hands tied to its back, Delhi Police resorted to extraordinary measures to prevent a repeat of the R-Day incidents. It sought to secure the protest site with fortified barricades, concertina wire and inverted nails and spikes in the road, to stop them marching into the capital for another day of mayhem. The action might have been preventive in intent but it was bad PR.

You do not resort to such crude measures, even in the cause of public safety and security. And the Opposition leaders, who barely conceal their glee at the farmers forcing the government on the backfoot, went to town at the oddity of the erection of a new border at the periphery of the national capital. The sheer mention of spikes and nails in the road to the capital evokes images of a Government under siege, afraid of its own people. This made the Government look bad. But the alternative was surrender to a small minority of farmers, who, having misread, or having been misled by the vested interests, seem hell-bent on reversing a legislation approved by an overwhelming majority in Parliament.

It is a different matter whether the three particular Bills were debated in Parliament at the time of their passage, since the Opposition parties had at one time or another committed to legislate the same reforms. Mercifully, the Rajya Sabha, in the last two days, has witnessed a lively debate, with the Opposition leaders calling for the repeal of the laws and the ruling party members emphasising the positives flowing from them. Their past support for the reforms was brought out during the course of the debate.

Overnight changing of opinions on men and matters as per convenience being a cost-free sport, video-recordings of the Opposition leaders making a case for the reforms did not seem to embarrass them a wee bit, all of them being veterans at eating crow. Not that the leaders of the ruling party are far behind in changing positions, saying one thing while in power and another when out of it.

Unfortunately, the opportunistic streak now mars the media as well, with well-known publications and television channels tailoring their views as per their own partisan political preferences. That would explain the response of the Opposition and the media to the gratuitous tweets of two foreign celebrities, one a climate change activist and another a pop sensation.

Whether Greta Thunberg and Rihanna are actually aware of the issues at stake in the standoff between farmers and the government is not the issue. Being celebrities, they command huge followings on social media. The Government was ill-advised to respond to their tweets. It would have served its cause better by maintaining a stoic silence. Such airy-fairy tweets from celebrities deserve no serious response. Mustering the support of Indian celebrities from Bollywood and from the world of sports seemed contrived. The Government should not be so touchy, so thin-skinned, so vulnerable that it would go out on a limb to counter a pop star who probably was led to tweet by her PR managers, to enhance her global celebrity.

Instead, there should be a serious effort to break the impasse, by engaging afresh the protesting farmers. The longer the protest lasts, the more it will dissipate the nation’s energies, distracting attention from the more pressing matters of governance and nation-building. Protesters, on their part, should see reason. It would drain all the moral authority of the Government should it succumb to the intimidation and bullying and repeal the reforms. Suspending the implementation for a reasonable period, during which an expert committee can review the reform legislations is the best course available. Otherwise, confrontation might become unavoidable.

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